color management

Professional inkjet printers are capable of expressing a wide range of color and detail. Any artist in pursuit of the best possible color for their images should implement color management in their workflow. The tools and methods used in the process will vary according to the amount of control desired and the artist’s budget. Let’s look at the basics of color management and some of the tools required to take your fine art printing to the next level.

ICC Profiles

An ICC profile is a mathematical representation of the color capabilities for an output device like your printer or monitor. These profiles are necessary because monitors and printers have limitations and varying ranges when producing image colors. A proper ICC profile allows you to accurately simulate the color capabilities of your printer on a computer monitor. It’s not a perfect simulation, but it will provide an approximate match between the final print and the image on your monitor.

Monitor Calibration

A monitor’s color accuracy fluctuates depending on the video card, age, make and model. It may be necessary to try different settings until you find the one that works best for your monitor. The key to creating a reproducible, consistent calibration on the monitor is using a quality calibration device. The i1 Display Pro made by X-Rite provides a high level of on-screen color accuracy and can be acquired for less than $300.

Colors on a monitor will shift over time and its color accuracy will diminish. It’s important to check the monitor calibration every month to ensure you are getting consistent color from it. You may need to calibrate it weekly if you have a particularly unstable monitor. Avoid issues by purchasing a quality monitor from reputable brands like Eizo, Apple, NEC or Samsung.

Soft Proofing

Soft proofing limits the monitor’s color output to try and match the reduced color range of your printer. Images that contain highly saturated, vibrant colors or designs like logos should be soft proofed before they reach the printer. It’s important to understand that soft proofing will not work on an uncalibrated monitor.

You can use Photoshop or similar software for soft proofing images before sending them to the printer. Choose the device to simulate by selecting the ICC profile of your printer. Then you pick a rendering intent and you can turn on Black Point Compensation if necessary. Finally, turn on Preview to see a more accurate representation of how the printer will output your image.

Rendering Intent

The rendering intent determines how colors that are out of gamut are handled when outputting an image. This means it decides which alternate color will be chosen if a certain color in the image can’t be reproduced by the printer, ink, and paper. There are four different rendering intents to choose from in color management and each one handles color differently. We’ll cover them briefly and let you determine which one is best for your image.

Absolute Colorimetric produces a tinted white to simulate the lightness and color of white from another source. It’s mainly used in proofing when you’re trying to match the output of one printer to another printer. This rendering intent works best when printing specific colors like logo colors or reproducing fabric colors.

Relative Colorimetric adjusts the original white point to the white point of the output source and produces color adjusted in relation to it. It’s useful if accurate reproduction of the paper white on the printer isn’t required when proofing. This rendering intent works best when the original image only contains a narrow range of colors.

Perceptual Intent compresses the image colors to fit the limited range of colors available on the output device. It’s useful for producing prints with accurate hue and reducing artifacts like banding in the final print. This rendering intent works well for most images especially if you want to set it and forget it.

Saturation Intent expands the image color range to the maximum range available on the output device but sacrifices hue accuracy. It’s useful for producing screen captures, bar graphs, and vector graphics. This rendering intent works best when image “pop” is preferred over hue of the color.

Which intent should you choose for soft proofing fine art? Start with Perceptual Intent and the colors in your image will appear more natural to your eyes. Switch to Relative Colorimetric to preserve more of the original image colors.

Which intent should you choose for printing fine art? Choose Absolute Colorimetric for accurate image colors, but only if your printer has an ink set with more than ten colors. Otherwise, choose Perceptual Intent if you have a printer with less than ten colors and you would like satisfactory results.

Printer Calibration & Profiling

All printers experience device drift over time, even if you consistently use the same type of ink, toner, and paper. Calibrating the printer adjusts the device into an optimal, quantifiable and repeatable state which keeps your color output accurate. This step involves printing color targets, setting ink limits, scanning the targets and saving them in the computer. Printer calibration is the first step in the process of proper color management and printer profiling is the second step.

Printer profiling creates a record or map of how the device produces color and what it can produce. This step involves printing a color target with a high number of colored patches. The patches are scanned with a special device, processed in the computer and saved in a file. This process produces the final ICC profile reflected by the calibration process in the first step.

The key to creating an accurate calibration and profile on a printer is using a quality scanning device. The i1 Pro 2 made by X-Rite provides a high level of accuracy and is the industry standard for color measurement devices. The i1 Pro 2 typically sells for $1,419 by itself or can purchased as a part of a complete color management solution for an extra $240.

Calibration and profiling should be repeated if you notice a drift in color accuracy from the printer. How often you need to re-calibrate will be determined by the stability of the printer hardware. It will be easy to recognize when it’s time to re-calibrate because your image colors will shift. All you need to do is print re-calibration, scan the targets, save the results and your color will be accurate again.

We presented a lot of information in this guide, and we hope you are considering ways to implement color management in your workflow. Devices and print media rely on ICC profiles to work together and produce expected results for you. Now you have the knowledge to achieve vibrant colors, smooth gradients and enhanced detail in your fine art prints.